Sunday, September 14, 2008

ha ha only serious

(that's a jargon file reference) Or: How Different People Have Said Interesting Things With the Really Silly Idea of the Magical Girl Story.

Senility. Yes, it must be truly setting in. I've gone from talking about serious anime and manga to talking about magical girl (魔法少女 - mahou shoujo) stories. But stick with me on this one. As I've said before, if you bother to dig around in the chaff, you can often find some truly golden wheat. Here, then, are three stories that star girls with supernatural powers that explore bigger ideas than just saving the world from some over-the-top evil organization in weekly installments.

Kamichu! ~Middle-School Goddess~
'Kamichu' is a contraction of Kami (god) and Chuugakusei (middle-school student)

I haven't written about Kamichu! in detail here before, which is a regrettable oversight. Kamichu! was the show that convinced me that there was stuff worth seeing in the world of anime, and that it was time that I started watching it again, and that if I was going to watch this pretty, high-definition stuff, I'd have to upgrade to some computing hardware that could cope with playback. I've just built my third-generation 'media box,' so you may safely assume that I'm not planning on stopping with anime any time soon. You can blame Kamichu! for starting me down this path.

At left: cover of the Kamichu! manga with the three lead characters in front of Onomichi and its harbor. L-R Matsuri, Yurie and Mitsue.

Kamichu! is about Yurie, a middle school girl (chuugakusei) in the city of Onomichi, Hiroshima
prefecture circa 1983. Yurie doesn't get her superpowers from some mysterious magical realm full of unpronounceable katakana names. She gets it the old (very old) fashioned way: she wakes up late for school one morning and realizes that she is now part of the Shinto pantheon: a kami. (or, more accurately, an arahitogami) Divinity has, for some reason, reached out and touched young Yurie, and she is now part of the spiritual firmament.

At Right: Yurie in her god getup. She usually looks even more miserable than this while wearing it.

She can see and interact with other denizens of the spirit world, does in fact have magical powers capable of altering the world, but still has to go through the daily grind of being a middle-schooler. She can bestow blessings, and attend god conventions, but she still has to get her frowsy self to school on time, still has a silent, blushing, suffering crush for the weirdo president (and lone member) of the calligraphy club, and is still the smallest and frailest late bloomer in her class.

One of Yurie's first challenges, after trying to convince her friends that she's a god, is to find out just what sort of god she is.

At left: View of Onomichi from mountaintop Raifuku shrine.

Her powers are as undeveloped as her stature, so it takes some careful probing by her friend Matsuri (who just happens to be the senior miko of an impoverished local mountaintop shrine) to get any idea at all of how to use her newly-found godly powers.

Sure sounds like a magical girl story, doesn't it? So what sets Kamichu! apart? Three things:

1. Yurie comes to magical girl status from a very human direction. She's not exceptionally smart, not exceptionally pretty, not exceptionally athletic. Indeed - she's not exceptional at all, except that she has definite, if rather ill-defined divine powers, but she has no idea why. She didn't grow up being a fairy princess, and she certainly doesn't think like one. She thinks like the 12-year-old daughter of a civil servant in a sleepy provincial town.

At Right: Yurie's nascent divine powers prove less useful than her knowledge of constitutional law in this situation.

When confronted with geopolitical complications and the leveled assault rifles of JSDF troopers in episode four, her solution is to recite, schoolgirl-like, Article 9 of the Japanese constitution at them until they realize the error of their ways.

2. Yurie herself: she's about as far from the traditional cute, perky, certain-to-grow-up-beautiful mahou shoujo as she could be and still be female. Yurie and her friends are in the exact middle of the awkward years of adolescence - no longer girls, but a long way yet from being more than notionally womanly. They're definitely not sexified pedo-bait.

At Left: Yurie sidles slowly down the path of love. Her beau is checking out calligraphy brushes.

We're presented with comparative images of girlhood (in the form of Matsuri's grade-school sister Miko) and womanhood (in the form of Yurie's ditzy-but-comely mother) that show us just where Yurie and her friends came from and where they're going. They are not especially comfortable with the journey and are uncertain about the desirability of the destination. It's a long way from the hundred episodes of unchanging fifth or sixth grade seen in most magical girl stories.

3. The setting and incidental characters. Onomichi's distinctive geographic and architectural features are carefully detailed.

At Right: More of the cast in an illustration done for the R2 DVD release. L-R Yurie's brother Shoukichi, Matsuri's sister Miko, Kenichi, Yurie, Matsuri, and Mitsue. The little humanoids are kamis of the things they resemble.

I knew I was watching something unusual in episode one when I realized I could see the entire far side of the bay from Yurie's schoolroom window, and that everything was carefully drawn to resemble something real. I suspect that this is Onomichi near its prettiest, but it's not scrubbed overly clean. There is rubbish in the streets and fishing boats chug in and out of the bay regularly.

Character designs, likewise, resemble real Japanese much more than some ideal never-world. Yurie's desk-bound father is plump. Her miko friend's father, who would rather be a farmer than a shinto priest, is always seen in his farmers coveralls, boots and tattered straw hat. He throws his back out periodically and has to lie belly-down in semi deshabille on the floor with a cold compress on his backside. On the spiritual side, the shinto belief in everything having a divine spirit creates a busy world of chattering kamis. It's remarkable that Yurie is able to do her schoolwork at all when the pencil eraser kami is pestering her with questions.

It is also worth mentioning that Kamichu! is a very Japanese show. It's rather obvious that it was not produced with an eye on the export market, as many shows are. It's a measure of the show's goodness that it was licensed by Geneon in spite of this, and is one of the titles picked up by Funimation for distribution after Geneon's implosion. A lot of the content deals with Japanese ideas of appropriateness, right and wrong, etc., and it makes some political and social commentary as well, as Dotdash details in two excellent blog entries here and here.

So what's it all about? It's about living and growing and learning to make decisions, compromises, and agreements like adults do, or at least should do. It's about shinto, sort of. It's about being 12 years old. It's about life. It's worth your time.

Okusama wa Mahou Shoujo
奥様は魔法少女 - Bewitched Agnes

My Honored Wife is a Magical Girl - Bewitched Agnes

Remember Bewitched - That TV sitcom from the '60s about a generic white-bread American family with a witch (yes, the black hat-and-cape kind) as the housewife? I wouldn't either if it weren't for syndicated runs on independent TV stations in the '70s and '80s.

It originally ran 1964-1972. It was apparently very popular on American TV (was rated #2 in its first year), so it was quickly picked up for international syndication in a lot of places, including Japan.

The Japanese, with their own history of alien goddess/princess stories (Kaguyahime, anyone?), put some rather different cultural freight on the idea of a wife with supernatural powers. Clever mangaka Yokoyama Mitsuteru aged the concept of a magical woman in a mundane milieu down and created the original magical schoolgirl, Sally (魔法使いサリー, Mahoutsukai Sari), in 1966. Sally herself was a huge hit - there were obviously a lot of Japanese baby-boomer girls who enjoyed the fantasy of a schoolgirl with superpowers saving the world, or at least her friends. Sally was a princess from a distant magical realm who wanted to hang out in the middle kingdom (Earth in this case) and meet humans because it looked fun. I'm guessing Yokoyama was borrowing from Hans Christian Anderson for that bit.

So what does any of this have to do with our second entry? Well, everything and nothing. When Bewitched ran in Japan, it was titled 奥さまは魔女 Okusama wa Majou (My honored wife is a Witch). Take Bewitched, stir in 30+ years of magical girl manga and anime in Japan, add a sprinkling of Ah! My Goddess (Aa Megamasami). Stir.

At Left: Ureshiko/Agnes doing the mahou thing, complete with broomstick.

Sounds formulaic, doesn't it? Everybody knows all the standard rules of a magical girl show by now, after all. Well yeah, but we left out Mysterious Ingredient X: Actions have consequences: there is duration, cause and effect, and everything that happened last show matters next show. Oh, and this has been going on for a few decades with a succession of magical girls...

Confused yet? Let's put it another way: What if there really were a magical girl from some magical realm protecting some nice little generic Japanese town?

At Right - Ureshiko hard at work managing her boarding house. Note that she's a little well-built for a mahou shoujo...

What if she had to obey all the peri-adolescent constraints - she can't start being an adult and stop being a magical girl because her town will be unprotected? No kissing. No kids. What if it goes on for years and years? She graduates middle school. She graduates high school. Her friends settle down, get married, have kids.

She can't. Because if she does, something bad will probably happen to the town/planet/universe she is sworn to protect. Sounds pretty hellish, doesn't it? Welcome to the world of twenty-seven-year-old Asaba Ureshiko. She's ready to get on with life, but she doesn't trust the replacement magical girl protector sent from the magical world of Realm (yes, that's its name this time) with her beloved town.

At Left: Tatsumi and Ureshiko.

Since Ureshiko can't very well still be a schoolgirl anymore, she has settled in as the manager of a boarding house. Yes, one of those boarding houses, like in Maison Ikkoku and Love Hina, among many others. Sure enough, a handsome young man (22 year old former college athlete Kagura Tatsumi) starts renting a room at her boarding house at the beginning of the first episode. If you've ever run across Maison Ikkoku (probably the greatest of the boarding-house romances and first big hit of Takahashi Rumiko's manga imperium), as everybody in Japan of a certain age has, then you automatically assume that she's the hot widow landlady and that he's the dim young guy who will single-mindedly try to win her love for hundreds of torturous chapters to come. You'd be wrong in this assumption, as you were when you assumed the same thing while reading Chobits.

There's a lot of toying with viewer expectations in the early episodes. The more you know about the back stories of various magical girl and boarding house romance stories, the more likely you are to be tripped up when the show delivers something else. Thankfully, the producers are actually pretty clever, so it all works out.

Right: Sayaka (in stealth schoolgirl mode) getting advice from an older mahou shoujo on the mechanics of dating.

There are three principal characters in Okusama wa Mahou Shoujo: Ureshiko, Tatsumi, and Ureshiko's appointed (by the Powers that Be in Realm) successor: Kurenai Sayaka. Sayaka is twelve going on 25 - so much so that she sometimes ages herself up magically to about 16 so she can go on dates and not be taken for a kid. Tatsumi is 22 going on 17 - he was a college athlete, and doesn't seem to have worried much about life after the high jump until it was thrust upon him. Now he has to grit his teeth and learn to be a salaryman. The transition is not an easy one, but he has intestinal fortitude and strength of character. Sayaka, likewise, is trying to transition into the magical girl protector role, but doesn't really understand what is at stake, or just what her duties really are.

Left: Sayaka takes advice, magically ages herself up and gets a beach date. Pink keitai symbolizes young womanhood, Kuma-tan childhood.

Ureshiko seems to mentally alternate between age 17 and her actual age 27, but it's pretty obvious that 27 is more natural to her.

According to her friends, Ureshiko is alternately serious and young-at-heart. Which, if you think about it, is pretty much the doomed existence of any magical girl protector. She can't be a flighty little girl because she has a world to save.

Right: Ureshiko, constructed on sound structural principles, doesn't fit her mahou shoujo outfit very well these days.

She can't be all serious and duty-oriented because it's both unappealing to the audience (who presumably like the shoujo archetype or wouldn't be watching) and because, one hopes at least, that it is contrary to the nature of her being.

Left: Sayaka uses magic of a different sort along with the age-up magic on her date.

The show also deals with the contrived nature of the milieu in the typical magical girl show. Wonderland (the town) is, in fact, entirely artificial. It's built to be a perfect little world where a magical girl protector from another dimension can live and do her thing without actually having to deal with the unpleasant realities of human perception, persistence of memory, and the fact that normal people tend to find daily destruction, mysterious magical reconstruction, and 27 year old women in very skimpy clothes flying around on brooms remarkable.

This leads me to discuss another feature of Okusama wa Mahou Shoujo - the show very deliberately pokes fun at the more dubious conventions of the mahou shoujo genre. Did you ever wonder if Sailor Moon, Nurse-Angel Ririka, et-al being sometimes little girls and sometimes full-developed women was weird to Japanese people, too? Wonder no more: Ureshiko's fully-developed 27-year-old self stuffed in a magical girl getup is very purposefully skewered for humorous effect.

Right: Sayaka, like Ureshiko, says 'hai' to all the dirty old men in the audience at the end of her powerup.

Likewise, the power-up sequences verge on softcore porn (or Ecchi, if you prefer). There's even a fourth-wall break moment when a bunch of adult men shout the mahou shoujo's name at the end of the power-up sequence, and she replies with "Hai!" Likewise, some of the humor directed at aged-up Sayaka/Cruje by her (unaware) classmates borders on sexual harrassment...

So what is Okusama wa Mahou Shoujo really about? There's pointing out the absurdity of the Mahou Shoujo format, of course. It's about changing roles, finding one's place in the world, the difference between make believe and the real thing, and the importance of letting go when the time for something has passed. In this last respect it's a little like Kaiba, oddly enough.

Kiki's Delivery Service
Majou no Takkyubin

'Federal Witch Express' is a pretty close translation. Takkyubin (宅急便) is a trademark of Kuroneko Yamato Transport, which is similar to FedEx or UPS in the USA.

Yes, Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli did a magical girl story as well. In an entertaining switch, our magical girl (actually a witch in the Western sense) just has to leave home, travel to a different town and set up shop. It's her rite of passage from childhood to a witch's adult life, and it happens when she turns 13. Kiki comes with all the standard equipment - a broom, black clothes, and even a witch's familiar - her black cat Jiji.

Left: Kuroneko Yamato Transport's logo. Any similarity to Jiji, and particularly to Jiji and his progeny late in the film, is probably intentional on Studio Ghibli's part.

It's not Miyazaki's deepest work, but it's a good exploration of coming of age themes and an entertaining mixture of magic and technology set in a European '50s neverworld.

Right: Our Heroine considering the radio weather forecast and her future before departing home. The red hair bow is a feature in the original collection of short stories by Kadono.

It shows that Miyazaki spent some time in Europe gathering material that eventually became Alps no Shoujo no Heidi - the milieu is a bit of an alpine mishmash, but it generally hits the right notes. It's also a colorful feast for the eyes, as we've come to expect from Ghibli productions. Perhaps surprisingly, given the chosen specifically European setting, there are none of the all-too-common glaring Japanese cultural misappropriations or wild anachronisms about. Anachronisms do exist, but they're quite deliberate. Miyazaki gets the little things right, leaving us free to pay attention to the story.

Left: Kiki's chosen town for her journeyman year. Scenes like this make me wish for an HD copy.

To a degree, Majou no Takkyubin is sort of Anne of Green Gables with broomstick aviation. This isn't particularly suprising since Isao Takahata - Miyazaki's partner in Studio Ghibli - directed the still-best adaptation of the L.M. Montgomery novel (as Akage no An) in 1979 for World Masterpiece Theater.

Right: Street scene in Kiki's new town. I wonder what Ashland Refining thinks of their trademark on the store facade. Given Miyazaki's confirmed gearhead status, it can't be an accident.

As is usually the case in Ghibli films, particularly those directed by Miyazaki, the music is both evocative and appropriate. Kiki prefers to fly around with 1950s pop playing on her transistor radio hanging from the broomstick. Likewise, Hisaishi's incidental and background music seems always to reinforce the story. It is all that it could be, and never strikes a wrong note.

Left: Kiki making a delivery on foot amid more Ghibli beautiful backgrounds. It's a throwaway scene, but speaks volumes about the care put into the film.

Something that isn't all it could be is Disney's dub. As I've complained before, while the Disney dub cast do an acceptable (though not inspired) job with the material, the dub track and script itself is not a thing of beauty - Disney decided that soda-pop swilling American children didn't have the attention span for the lovely film Miyazaki had directed, so 'helped' it along with verbal slapstick in place of music and new throw-away one-liners that add nothing of value to the film, and detract from its great strengths of plotting and framing. The Disney English sub track is nothing spectacular (I think it was written from the dub dialog sheets), but isn't as bad. I would be curious to see the Carl Macek sub track for comparison.

Right: Because there was no WWII, (and possibly because there were witches around for airmail) aviation has not advanced as rapidly in this world as in ours. When this Zeppelin has trouble later in the story, Disney couldn't resist adding 'oh the humanity' to both the dub and sub tracks.

Incidentally, after seeing Wall-E in the theater, I am inclined to believe that Disney might have been right about the sugar-and-jump-cut-addled attention span of American youth. My (anime- and PBS-raised) four-year-old son was entranced through the whole movie, but a flock of 8-12 year olds two rows back from us didn't stop chattering at each other until the action started in the second half. Wall-E might as well be a Miyazaki movie - it is very similar to Nausicaa thematically, and Pixar are avowed Studio Ghibli fans. Whether or not the dub directors and writers were right about the American audience, it wasn't their place to be making significant editorial content changes to a film by an acknowledged master.

Left: The youth of Kiki's new town don't exactly embrace her with open arms. There's some social commentary about the differnence between children of privelege and those who must strive.

Oh well, at least the Ghibli/Disney distribution contract forbids clipping even a single frame of film.

Right: ...but Kiki tries hard and does good deeds (here tending a wood-fired oven for a parcel customer when the electric one fails) and earns her place in the town.

The message is more succinct, but very similar to that of Akage no An: A lively, determined girl can make a place in the world for herself if she tries earnestly enough, believes in her own abilities, and is smart enough to ask for help when things go against her.

Left: bonus pic: Some things are the same in this alternate universe. Behold a Fiat 600 Multipla taxi, circa 1956. Kiki's walking the other way as it whizzes past - she can't afford a taxi and didn't bring her broom.

I considered doing a section on Gunslinger Girl here as well, since the first-generation girls obviously riff off of the idea of a mahou shoujo story in some important ways. But I've tilled that ground very thoroughly before, so didn't want to go over it again.